Why hiring a regular gigging drummer could spell disaster in your recording session
And why a skilled session drummer will save you time, money and agony.
by Goran Rista
So, you have worked on your songs for 2 years now, arrangements are ready and you've booked a studio to record your debut album. Your mate Dave, drummer that you've played some gigs with should do the job fine and it will save you a few bucks. Or so you think!
In the best case scenario, you'll walk away with a mediocre CD, but most likely you'll end up disappointed, frustrated, broke and with nothing to show for it. Not only will you not save any money, but it will cost you more as you will now have to hire a real session drummer to re-record, after you have already wasted a pile of cash. Things get even worse if you hired other musicians for the session, which you may have to do all over again.
If you haven't experienced this already, then you are one of the lucky ones. What you don't know can and will hurt you. Read this article carefully and avoid a studio nightmare!
I hear stories time after time of studio disasters with incompetent drummers. Drummers that are considered “good” for gigging standards go into studios only to completely fall apart to basic pieces. There are drummers, good drummers, great drummers and there are great session drummers! A great session drummer has an extraordinary combination of skills and talent that are necessary for a studio session situation. He is like a Samurai, an elite warrior or like a brain surgeon in his respected field. You wouldn't allow a GP to open your scalp, would you?
While somebody may sound great live, the studio environment is a different ball game altogether. When you play live, there is a lot of room to stretch and over-play. Anything that you play is gone in an instant and will never be repeated again. Mistakes are forgiven as many things you can't even hear due to imperfect environmental acoustics. You are more apt to overlook time fluctuations, missing notes, and the proverbial “clam” because you are focused on playing/ singing your part. In a recording session, however, every little detail will be captured for all eternity. It will be put under an audio microscope, then magnified for all to hear.
Let's go over skills and talent necessary for your drummer to have in order to do a great recording, as well as look at common problems and how to avoid them.
All of the stories are true, although most names have been changed to protect identities.
Ready, Steady, PANIC!
Unless a drummer has experience playing in studio, chances are that as soon as the red light goes on, he will freak out, shut off, speed and drag while not paying attention to what is going on musically.
A true session drummer must have the ability to stay calm and above all FOCUSED! That is the most important aspect of studio playing. He will have to focus on many things simultaneously, which I will discuss below.
The Steve Smith Story:
One of the world's greatest drummers, Steve Smith, was once upon a time fired from a recording session with Brian Adams. They were recording to a click track and at that point Steve Smith was not accustomed to playing with a click. All of the Journey albums he had done previously were recorded without one. He could not stay rigid enough, so he was replaced. This was, mind you, prior to Pro Tools heyday.
Information taken from MD Magazine interview with Steve Smith
The Click Track - Best Friend or Worst Enemy!?
The click track is one of the most helpful recording tools for drummers who are used to playing along with them. However, put a click to a drummer who has little or no experience playing along with one and it will be a painful and bloody fight.
The click track is a lie-detector. Before hiring a drummer, make sure he is comfortable with playing to a click track if you plan on recording to a click. Otherwise, make sure he has impeccable time and a naturally rock-solid groove!
Reading a Drum Chart! What is That?
While it is not absolutely necessary to be able to read music, having the ability to do so will make things go a lot smoother and faster if charts are being used. A skilled session drummer will be able to read and interpret charts that are provided or be able to sketch out his own charts indicating sections and any important parts that he is supposed to play. If your music is complicated, charts will save you time, money and agony. If you have prepared charts, make sure that your drummer knows how to interpret charts without sounding like he is reading.
A combination of reading and musical memory is best and will produce finest results.
A skilled session drummer will keep a consistent feel throughout the song. It is natural for a musician to rush when music gets exciting and drag when it cools down. In a recording situation he has to partially switch off his emotions to avoid rushing or dragging due to excitement or a lack thereof and stay solid. When you play live and you rush one point in a song, it's not a biggie as you can just keep on going as if nothing happened. When you play to a click track in a studio and you rush, you'll then have to drag in order to align yourself with the click again. That makes the time fluctuations more obvious.
Tony (not his real name) received a small grant to record a Jazz album. He chose a great line-up of session musicians, except for the drummer. He got a friend, who he had known from back home and with whom he played some gigs live.
His friend drummer was inexperienced in a studio situation and was very nervous in the recording session. The groove was a disaster! Drummer would separate from the rest of the rhythm section and fall behind the beat so much that eventually he would come back on the beat. It sounded like 2 separate recordings at 2 different tempos were accidentally put together- a total train-wreck throughout. Forget about taking musical directions from Tony!
As a results, Tony had to hire a session drummer to replace drum tracks on all songs. He also had to pay for studio time once again, all of which depleted his budget before he was even close to mixing. Session drummer that was hired did a great job replacing, but the songs would still speed up and slow for no apparent reason as the rest of the instruments were recorded to the original groove-less drummer.
If you are recording any kind of commercial music (Pop, Rock, Country etc.), the sound and level of the snare and kick drums has to be consistent throughout.
The Sound and Tuning of the Drums.
While on live gigs pretty much anything goes, in the studio every little detail is critical. There can't be squeaky pedals and rattling stands. It is amazing how many drummers don't know how to tune their instrument and in what bad condition they keep their drums in. The most important thing for getting a great-sounding drum recording is to have a drum set properly tuned. Make sure your drummer knows how to tune his drums.
Every note played has to be cleanly executed and in time. There can't be accidental kick drum flams throughout or rough subdivisions. Every subtle ghost note has to flow in time and with the feel of the song.
There are 2 types of dynamics that a skilled session drummer will have mastered: dynamics between individual components of the drum set and dynamics of playing within context of the music.
A drum set is a unique instrument in respect that it requires a player to use all 4 limbs simultaneously to create a drum groove. Levels between individual drum components (hi-hat, snare, kick etc.) have to be well-balanced to sound like a unified instrument. A skilled session drummer will blend drum components well that it will make the sound engineer's job a pleasure rather than a salvaging mission-impossible.
Make sure your drummer can accompany an acoustic violin, but also cut through a brass section playing triple forte.
Ryan got some studio time from a friend to record a couple of original tunes. He picked skilled musicians with whom he played with before. Drummer he picked, however, he never recorded with before.
Drummer was fast and had chops to kill for - one of those "look at me, I'm the man" kind of drummers. However, put in the studio situation, he played so loud that nobody could focus on their part. He played so busy that he killed any kind of musical flow of the other musicians. Fills were all over the place, which he would not quite pull off and the groove was something he would use to connect one fill to the next.
Needless to say that the session was unusable and thrown out.
Less is More.
This is particularly true for recording music. In most instances, busy drummers are an absolute NO NO for a studio. Whatever you may do live, in the studio you have to strip it down to basic elements and play only what is necessary while leaving space for the rest of the production. Make sure your drummer is a groove player and not a “look at me,” chops-fest show-off.
A skilled session drummer will know how to authentically play all but most obscure musical styles and will be able to interpret your directions and translate them into music. He will be able to quickly adapt to requests and be able to implement them immediately in subsequent takes.
As well as having all of the technical and mechanical bits down, a skilled session drummer has the ability to create musical parts and play what's appropriate. Just as important, he will know what not to play!
A skilled session drummer will be ready to take direction from either the producer or the artist and be willing to try different things to get the best results. He will be punctual and have a professional, friendly attitude before, during and after the recording session.
Al was recording an album in which all of the musicians played and recorded together at the same time. Session drummer that was recommended as a first choice was unavailable, so a talented young drummer got a call.
While he was a pretty good player, being young he hadn't learned the other necessary aspects of professional conduct.
He would blast a portable air horn in between takes and would be nowhere to be found after a short intermission. When he was found, he was busy smoking a joint. His unacceptable attitude got him fired quickly and a true session drummer was brought as a replacement.
The following sessions were a breeze: they went smoothly and efficiently with great results.
In a summary, your skilled session drummer will be:
- able to play a steady groove with a great feel to a click track;
- able to create musical parts while reading the charts;
- strike the drums consistently that he tuned to perfection;
- play only what is necessary;
- able to take directions and translate them into music;
- have a clean execution at any dynamic level or speed; and
- able to do all of the above with a professional and friendly attitude!
As you can now see, there are many things that have to be taken care of simultaneously and only a small percentage of drummers have the technical and mental ability to do so. Now that you know what you are looking for, the task of finding a skilled session drummer who is right for your recording session should be that much easier.
Sure, there are modern tools designed to correct mistakes, but why fix if you can get it right from the start? Your money and time is better spent elsewhere and having a great raw recording means you'll be able to enhance it further rather than salvage what you can.
Do it right the first time around!